SciREN Brings University Research to K-12 Classrooms

It was past closing time at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, but hundreds of teachers were still crowding into the building. More than 300 educators from 30 counties ventured to downtown Raleigh — on a school night, no less — to take part in SciREN Triangle, a networking event designed to put University research into K-12 classrooms.

First SciREN Triangle event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Over 100 STEM scientists and 300 teachers participated.Over 100 STEM scientists and 300 teachers participated in the 2014 SciREN Triangle event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Launched in 2012 by the Institute of Marine Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill, the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN) brings together researchers from UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State University, and Duke University to create ready-made lesson plans for K-12 teachers. Last month, dozens of researchers in science, technology, and math fields took over four floors of the museum to showcase lesson plans for students of all ages.

“Bringing science to young people is really important,” said Jennifer Kernan, a PhD candidate in pharmacology at UNC Chapel Hill. She was manning a booth on the museum’s third floor, explaining a hands-on lesson in plant adaptation designed for elementary school biology. “I would love to have learned about this stuff much earlier, and I think this is a really neat way of getting younger students interested in science. We’ve taken these complex ideas about genetic adaptation and made them into a game, so students can see how plants and animals have changed in response to one another.”

Just down the hall, N.C. State ecologist Martha Reiskind was holding a jar full of mosquito larvae, explaining their life cycle to an enthralled elementary schooler. Reiskind’s lesson plan offers students the chance to collect mosquito eggs, grow them in a contained environment, and even send samples to N.C. State to help create a dynamic map of different species.

“It allows students to understand disease ecology, invasive species, the process of collecting data — you can get a lot out of one experiment,” Reiskind explained. “If I can figure out a way to incorporate something that’s kind of different — kind of cool, kind of bizarre — into the classroom curriculum, that’s a win for everyone.”

Linda Tugurian, a science and technology facilitator for Durham Public Schools, caught up with Reiskind later in the evening to hear more about the mosquito experiment.

“Being able to direct teachers to these resources is wonderful,” Tugurian said. “We can create partnerships with working scientists, and we can get students working on citizen-science projects. It’s wonderful to have lessons that are connected to real-world research.”

SciREN was created with those connections in mind. The first networking nights were held at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, mostly highlighting work from the Institute of Marine Sciences facility in nearby Morehead City. The success of those marine-focused events led the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh to offer space and support for a much larger networking night, involving all STEM fields from UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and Duke.

“This all started on the coast, on a very small scale, to connect local researchers with local teachers,” said Kerry Irish, communications specialist for the Institute of Marine Sciences. “We’re thrilled that the idea has grown, and now we’re seeing hundreds of teachers working with university researchers from so many different disciplines.”

It’s not just the teachers who benefit. Graduate students and faculty who participate in the networking nights attend a curriculum workshop, hosted by K-12 instructors, to help craft their scientific work into usable lesson plans. And with researchers participating across several different universities and a variety of different disciplines, it gives scientists the chance to learn from their colleagues.

N.C. State ecologist Martha Reiskind was holding a jar full of mosquito larvae, explaining their life cycle to an enthralled elementary schooler.NC State ecologist Martha Reiskind shows a jar of mosquito larvae to an elementary schooler.

“It’s great professional development for researchers,” Irish said. “The whole idea of science communication is really meaningful, and a lot of our graduate students and researchers want the skills to do that well. It helps our scientists explain the broader impact of their work.”

The more than fifty lessons on offer last month included everything from fish habitats to food safety to neuropsychology. Carla Barnes, a 4th-grade science teacher at Johnsonville Elementary, drove up from Harnett County to gather new material for her students.

“I found some neat stuff,” she said. “I think I can adapt one of the lessons to show my kids how to make solar energy, which ought to be interesting for them.”

The Institute of Marine Sciences is now working on a website to archive and display all of the lesson plans developed in recent years, making them available to any teacher in the state. “These are such fantastic resources, and we want to see them shared as widely as possible,” Irish said.

The online project is funded by the Kenan-Biddle Partnership, which helps foster connections between students and faculty at Duke and UNC. SciREN researchers hope to have the lesson plan archive available by spring 2015, part of the long-term mission of promoting scientific literacy across North Carolina.

“The impact of something like this is far-reaching,” Irish said. “The teachers connect with the scientists, the students connect with whole new fields. We want those relationships to take on a life of their own.”

Learn more about SciREN.

Story written by Eric Johnson
Photos by Eric Johnson and K. Irish, UNC Institute of Marine Science.